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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

December 7, 2011 at 10:43 AM

M’s should keep Smoak even if they sign Prince Fielder

smoakswing.jpg

(Photo by Associated Press)

For the record, I don’t think the Mariners are going to sign Prince Fielder, despite the status of frontrunner that was bestowed upon them yesterday by Jim Bowden. I think the market will get too rich for them, and, as Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, said in a text yesterday to Bowden, “we have many suitors, and the coffee isn’t even hot yet.” Geoff explains today how the market could blow up quickly for Fielder, and I predicted yesterday that Boras will find a way to get the bidding up into the stratosphere. My sense is that if and when the pricetag gets into the seven or eight year, $150-million-plus territory, the Mariners won’t be serious players. Prediction: He’ll sign with the Marlins, seemingly about to be shunned by Pujols after an all-out bid.

But let’s play along anyway. Let’s say that the miracle happens, the stars align, and the M’s land Prince Fielder. Already, the assumption is taking hold that they would then turn around and trade Justin Smoak, who would obviously be displaced at first base (for the short term, anyway), by Fielder. Jon Morosi of Fox tweeted just that a few days ago.

To me, however, that would be counter-productive. The idea behind signing Fielder is to beef up Seattle’s offense, but he can’t do it alone. Smoak is someone upon whom the Mariners are counting upon, hugely, to have a breakthrough season in 2012, which I don’t think is an unreasonable pipedream. This guy was the key component in the Cliff Lee trade, the person that Jack Zduriencik liked enough to turn down a chance to get Jesus Montero from the Yankees. Smoak didn’t have the season everyone hoped for last year, but even with extenuating circumstances (more on that in a second), he still hit 15 homers and put up a 104 OPS plus in 123 games. He’s just 25 (as of two days ago), and a switch-hitter.

I still love Smoak’s potential, particularly if he gets serious about the conditioning plan the Mariners have put him on this winter. Eric Wedge said yesterday in Dallas the club plans to bring in Smoak into Seattle in January, along with Franklin Gutierrez and a couple of others, to monitor their progress. Smoak has already been out once. Wedge said, “He’s on the rail, doing his thing. We had him come out here and do some things. We sent a guy back there with him to meet with his guy and do some things. So he’s one of the guys that we’ll bring in early January.”

I think we saw what getting serious about conditioning did last year for Mike Carp. It’s easy to mock the “best shape of my career” storylines every spring, but I’ve seen players gain in confidence as their body strengthens (and I’m not talking about the banned stuff).

As for those “extenuating circumstances,” Smoak had a rough year, physically and emotionally. His father died in late April, a devastating blow for anyone. And I think there’s no question that his thumb injury, downplayed by the Mariners at the time, was more serious than anyone was letting on. This Lookout Landing piece did a good job of documenting his startling decline at precisely the point the thumb rumors started. Look at his OPS splits by month: .920 in April, .750 in May, .737 in June, .399 in July (when his thumb issues peaked), just three games played in August because of a groin strain and fractured nose, and .793 OPS in September. Take out the period when his thumb was presumably keeping him from swinging in his accustomed fashion, and his year looks a lot better.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that a healthy, healed Smoak could and should make some major steps forward in 2012. If Fielder comes to Seattle (repeat: a longshot), why not keep Smoak as the designated hitter and spot starter at first base (while gently trying to convince Prince that DH isn’t so bad). Not having the burden of being the primary power hitter, which he most definitely labored under last year, would also help Smoak relax. Yes, you could deal him for a third baseman like Mark Reynolds, but I’d rather have a young player with upside and the potential to become Fielder’s…well, maybe not his Ryan Braun, but how about his Corey Hart?

That’s today’s moot-point debate. Now let’s return to the real world, in which Jon Heyman just tweeted the following:

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Loving the #marlins style here. Now talking to prince. prefer pujols for marketing but love fielders age (27)/production
Dec 07 via Mobile WebFavoriteRetweetReply

I think the coffee is starting to brew.

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